Laser cutters are fascinating to most of us, especially for those of us that grew up considering that lasers were something from science fiction. When something is as fascinating, widely used, and highly regarded as laser cutters are, it is guaranteed to generate questions! That’s why in this post, we decided to round up some of the most frequently asked questions about laser cutters, so you can get all the answers you might want, as well as some pointers as to where to find more information, all in one place. Let’s get started!
When were laser cutters invented?
The history of laser cutters is complex, and there were a lot of people involved to get to where we are today. It started from work on the Microwaves Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation (MASER) project, which grew out of work by Charles Townes during World War Two. By 1957, Townes and his brother in law Arthur Schwalow created a theory of working with lasers as an “optimal maser”. This work was further evolved by Gordon Gould, who was working at Columbia University. Gould was eventually issued the patent for the laser, but there was huge debate who created the theory of the laser. It was finally Theodore Maiman who was able to create the first ruby laser, which was able to generate a straight red laser beam in 1960, and the first ruby laser that could be used continuously was created in 1961 by Boyle and Nelson.
The video below shows the original laser, which can be found at the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics in Germany.
How do laser cutters work?
Laser cutters work by sending the output of a high power laser through optics, in order to focus the laser beam. The beam is then directed at the material, which is then either melted, burnt, or vaporised. The laser beam is controlled by a computer, from design software, or a manufacturer created package. The most commonly used file types that are used by laser cutters are raster, and vector files.
Are there different types of laser cutters?
Yes, there are. The three main types of laser cutters: CO2 lasers, fibre lasers, and crystal lasers.
CO2 lasers (sometimes referred to as CO2 laser cutters) use electrically stimulated carbon dioxide gas mixtures to create a beam with a wavelength of up to 10.6 micrometres. They are very efficient, and provide high quality results.
Fibre lasers create their beam using a seed laser, which is then improved by being sent through glass fibres that have been energised from pump diodes. This results in a very small focal diameter, and therefore a very intense beam compared with gas lasers of a similar power
Crystal lasers (also known as nd:YAG and nd:YVO – that is, ‘neodymium-doped yttrium aluminium garnet’ and ‘neodymium-doped yttrium ortho-vanadate’ lasers) are solid state lasers, with beams that are similar to fibre lasers. They are much more expensive to maintain than other types of lasers, as the parts are costly, and have a much shorter life expectancy than parts for other laser cutters.
What are laser cutters used for?
Laser cutters are used for cutting materials, and they are used in a wide range of industries. We wrote a whole piece about some of the industries that laser cutters are used in, but suffice it to say that laser cutters are found in most industries. They’re commonly used for prototyping, but because laser cutters are so accurate and can be used with so many materials, they are used for all kinds of things, from creating jewellery and fashion items, to making bespoke items for retail and hospitality, as well as industries that need more accuracy, such as the medical field, automotive and aviation, and other types of engineering. You’ll even find laser cutters being used to create small businesses, such as making trophies, making Christmas gifts, or uniquely designed items for weddings.
What materials can laser cutters be used to cut?
There is a wide range of materials that can be processed with a laser cutter, but we can’t talk about the materials that can be cut with a laser cutter without mentioning that different types of laser cutters can process different types of materials. Let’s take a quick look at which materials can be processed with which types of laser cutters.
Gas laser cutters are able to cut glass, a number of plastics and acrylics, some foams, leather, paper-based products, wood, and other natural materials. Some metals can be processed with gas laser cutters too, but you’ll need to check the specifications and manufacturer’s guidance before doing so.
Crystal laser cutters can cut plastics, metals, and some types of ceramics.
Fibre laser cutters are suitable for cutting plastics and metals, as well as other non-metallic materials.
Now we’ve covered which laser cutter can handle which material, we can take a quick look at which materials laser cutters can be used to cut. We did a much bigger look at the materials that can be cut with a laser cutter in this post.
Can you cut metal in a laser cutter?
As a rule, the answer is yes, as long as you have a crystal, or fibre laser cutter. There are some gas laser cutters that can process some metals, but because many metals are reflective, it can be challenging to cut metals with a laser cutter. Stainless steel, mild steel, and Corten steel, as well as aluminium, copper, and brass, can all be cut with a laser cutter under certain conditions.
Is wood suitable for being cut in a laser cutter?
Yes, you can cut natural woods in a laser cutter. The issue you’ll need to watch for is where woods are oily, or have a lot of resin, as they may drip sap, or catch fire and burn, and smoke can damage the optics in your laser. Thinner woods – less than 20mm – will give the best results.
When laser cutting manufactured boards such as plywood and composite woods, you’ll need to pay close attention to what is in the board, and the laser cutter when the cut is taking place. The adhesive may burn, or drip from the board, which can then cause damage to the cutting bed, or the optics.
Can plastics be cut with a laser cutter?
Yes, many plastics can be cut with laser cutters. Acrylic, Lucite, Plexiglas and PMMA all give fantastic results when cut with a laser cutter, with a polished edge on the finished cut. As you’d expect, there may be differences between the results depending on the type of plastic, the laser cutter, and the laser cutter’s setup.
What other materials can be cut with a laser cutter?
Many natural materials, and those derived from natural materials can be cut with a laser cutter. Materials such as paper and cardboard, cork, natural fabrics such as cotton, silk, and felt, leather and suede, as well as some stones can be cut or engraved with a laser cutter. For more information about the types of materials you can cut with a laser cutter, check out our post here.
Is there anything that shouldn’t be cut with a laser cutter?
While laser cutters are extremely versatile and can be used to cut a lot of different materials, there are some that definitely shouldn’t be in your laser cutter. Firstly, you’ll need to remember that there are different types of laser cutter, and this will influence what you can put in your laser cutter.
CO2 lasers generally can’t cut metals. However, this will depend on the type of laser cutter you buy, so if you need to be able to cut or engrave metals with your laser cutter, check before you make your purchase. It may be that you need a fibre laser cutter instead.
We talked at length about which materials should never be in your laser cutter in our post about laser cutter materials, as well as in our post about ruining your laser cutter. A very quick roundup and the reasons why you shouldn’t use these materials in your laser cutter:
PVC, vinyl, and artificial leather/pleather/faux leather
These materials will release chlorine gas when cut with a laser. Chlorine will damage the optics and metal parts on your laser cutter, irritate the lungs, and in high concentrations, it can kill within half an hour. Definitely not worth the risk.
The risk of fire is high when trying to cut thicker polycarbonate with a laser cutter, which means potential exposure to smoke inhalation, damage to your laser cutter from the thin trails of soot, as well as the risk of fire spreading.
Commonly recognised as Lego, ABS is prone to catching fire when cut with a laser – with all the associated damage that fire can cause to your laser cutter, including melting onto the cutting bed. Worse though, is that that it can release hydrogen cyanide, which can be deadly.
HDPE (milk bottle plastic)
Another material that is likely to catch fire, and melt onto your cutting bed. While reusing existing products is always a good idea, find another method of cutting your old milk bottles.
Add this one to the list of materials that catch fire. Polystyrene foam burns quickly, causing damage to optics, and leaving melted deposits on the cutting bed.
This material catches fire really quickly, and as the material burns, it drips, leaving hard deposits that are really difficult to remove, so as well as the damage that flames, smoke, and soot can cause, you’ll end up with a ruined cutting bed.
Potential for burning and fire is also a risk with epoxy, but you’ll also be risking your lungs, due to the toxic fumes that are released.
Made from a blend of epoxy and glass, fibreglass isn’t a good material to have in your laser cutter for the same reasons that epoxy isn’t – the risk of burning and the risk of poisonous gases being released.
Coated carbon fibre
Some thin carbon fibre can be safely cut with your laser, but any that is coated should be kept out of your machine. Chances are, it will burn, with the risk of fire, and dripping material onto the cutting bed – as well as damage to the rest of the machine. Not only that, there’s a high risk of toxic gases being released.
Anything with sticky glue backing
Unfortunately, laser cut stickers are unlikely to be your next big seller. As the glue is heated by the laser, it is vaporised, and can then coat the laser lens, which in turn heats, and can crack it. There’s also the risk of fire too.
Technically, you could use a laser cutter to cut food. But if you’re going to do this and plan to eat whatever you’ve cut, you’ll need a separate laser cutter, because of the risk of cross-contamination with toxic materials. Not only that, but various foods will burn, releasing smoke and oil, which can drip, making a mess, or causing damage to the inside of your machine.
When to use a laser cutter… and when not to?
Clearly, when you consider the materials that shouldn’t be in your laser cutter, you’ll need to use a different method of cutting for those. We took a look at some of the other methods of cutting in our post comparing laser cutters with other types of machinery, and so there may be a better method already in your workshop for those materials. But it may be that a manual method of cutting is better, depending on the product, and how you’re marketing it – so you’ll need to make that call depending on which material you’re working with.
Where can I get materials for my laser cutter?
We have a wide variety of materials available that are suitable for use in your laser cutter. We also manufacture our own acrylic, and for the rest of our range, we source the very best materials possible, including sourcing our wood from sustainable forests. In addition to that, we also have a large database full of information, including advanced and exotic materials, which means we can advise customers about how materials can be processed, and which machinery is best for working with those materials.
How deep can a laser cutter cut?
It depends on the power of the laser cutter, and the material you’re working with. While some lasers will only be able to cut a millimetre or two into some materials, deeper cuts can be achieved by doing multiple passes with the laser. Since the laser is following the instructions from the design file you created, it can follow the instructions more than once, without noticeably impacting the final piece.
How fast is a laser cutter?
Laser cutters are pretty quick at completing cuts and engraves, but speed isn’t always what it is about. Faster cutting speeds can lead to lower quality cuts, and for thicker materials, the cutting speed is dependent on the power of the laser. But even with super thin materials such as paper, working at 100% speed might not be the right option, since it might cause vibration, even in an advanced laser cutter. You might also find that high speed raster marking or engraving might not result in the highest quality finishes too. You can see more about why top speed shouldn’t be the most important factor if you’re choosing a laser system here.
What can a laser cutter do other than cut?
If you’re spending money on a piece of kit for a business or a hobby, you want to be able to get the most from it. Laser cutters cut, but because of the amount of control you get with a laser, you can also use it for other techniques, such as engraving, marking, and etching. These techniques mean that you can offer your customers more services, and you can customise your products, so you can expand or extend your product range.
Are laser cutter fumes toxic?
They can be, as we’ve already seen in the section about what you shouldn’t be cutting in your laser cutter. Even the materials that release gases that aren’t considered toxic are probably not particularly good for us though, so when you’re buying a laser cutter, make sure you have a fume extraction system. If you’re unsure whether you need one or not, check with the company that you’re buying from.
Is laser cutting eco-friendly?
This is a commonly asked question, and in many ways, a laser cutter can help your business to become more environmentally friendly. Of course, manufacturing most things will ultimately have a negative impact on the environment, but a laser cutter can help you to reduce waste by making the most from your materials, using less power than other machinery, minimising the use of single-use plastics, and so on. You can read more about how laser cutting can help you work in a more sustainable way here.
What are the alternatives to using a laser cutter?
There are many alternatives to using a laser cutter – from manual methods of cutting, to other types of machinery that can cut, etch, and engrave. We took a deep dive into how laser cutters compare to other machinery in this post, and there is quite a lot to cover, so it is well worth having a read there if you want to know more about the alternatives to using laser cutters.
Can you make money with a laser cutter?
Absolutely – and plenty of businesses do. While businesses across many industries make use of laser cutters as part of their manufacturing and prototyping processes, small businesses make use of laser cutters to create profits to make their products. Laser cut wedding products, Christmas gifts, and jewellery are all incredibly popular, and combined with a great website, social media presence, and cost-effective shipping (amongst other elements!) if you have designs that people want, then you can certainly make money with your laser cutter.
Which laser cutter is best?
Goodness, this is like asking which “car is best?” – there are simply way too many variables to make a sweeping generalisation. The best one is the one that suits your needs! If you’re starting out with this question, then some of the things you’ll need to consider when you’re narrowing down which laser cutter is best for you include:
- What budget do you have available to buy your laser cutter?
- How much space do you have in your workshop to accommodate the laser cutter?
- What size of material will you need to work with?
- What type of material are you going to be cutting with your laser cutter?
- Which techniques are you going to be using with your laser cutter?
- What peripherals such as (fume extraction systems) do you need to get the most from your laser cutter?
- How much will consumables cost you?
- What are the running costs?
These aren’t the only things you’ll need to think about, of course – you’ll need to consider things like servicing and maintenance, and to make sure you’re able to cover that as part of your budget.
What laser cutter should I buy?
We’ll refer you to our section about which laser cutter is best here. The right one for you will depend on so many different things, that it is impossible for us to generalise. However, if you’ve narrowed your choice down to a Universal Laser Systems laser cutter, we can certainly advise you based on your answers to our questions above. You can get in touch with us and a member of our experienced sales team will be able to guide you.
Once you know how a laser cutter works, and how to use the settings best for the materials that you’re working with, most laser cutters that are in use commercially are simple enough to use. The ones that might be trickier to use are the unbranded, no name laser cutters that you can find on eBay, or if you search “laser cutters from China”. These ones won’t necessarily have the same settings, and compatibility with design software. Some might, but you can’t guarantee it, and so if you’re looking for ease of use, and plenty of tutorials and other online resources, look for mainstream, branded laser cutters with a wide userbase and following.
How long does a laser cutter last?
Just like a quality car, with the correct maintenance and regular servicing, a laser cutter should last a really long time – we support clients that have had their Universal laser cutters for years. The University of Dundee first purchased one of their Universal laser cutters from us around 16 years ago, and it is still going strong and being used regularly, which is why they recently contacted us for, and invested in their second one, for their design department.
Is a laser cutter worth it?
Our inner geeks are all shouting about how cool laser cutters are, and how much fun they can be, as well as all the other benefits to owning one, but we’re letting our hearts rule our heads here! A laser cutter is really only worth the investment if you’re going to be using the laser cutter regularly, and the plans you have mean that you’ll see a good enough return on your investment. Do the planning, and figure out the returns that you’re likely to see before you take the plunge. If a laser cutter is out of reach for now, look at using a company that can provide the service you need, or use a local makerspace.
Where can I find a laser cutter for sale?
It depends on what type of laser cutter you’re looking for, your budget, and so on. A quick internet search will find you plenty of places to buy laser cutters, but if you’re looking for an approved, experienced supplier, then look no further than us. We’re the UK’s leading Universal Laser Systems distributor, and not only do we sell brand new laser cutters, but our expertise means that we are able to sell second-user and ex-demonstration models too.
How much does a laser cutter cost?
While prices of laser cutters have fallen significantly from the first models that entered the market, they’re still a significant investment.
We’d advise not being tempted by cheap laser cutters from eBay, which typically come from China and are unbranded. This is because they are really hard to support, and if they stop working, chances are you won’t be able to access the type of support you need. Rather than buying a laser cutter from China, we’d recommend looking at our second-user and ex-demonstration models, since we can support those, and as they are fully refurbished and in perfect working order before they leave us, they’re a much more reliable investment.
What can you do if your laser cutter is not working?
Your laser cutter being out of order can be absolutely disastrous for a business, especially if you’re reliant on it to get orders out to customers in a timely manner. But having a standby backup laser cutter isn’t a reality for most companies, as they are too expensive. Having access to the best maintenance and engineers is the next best thing, so that you can be back up and running as quickly as possible.
We offer service and support for Universal Laser Systems, and if you want to really minimise the risk of your laser cutter breaking down on you unexpectedly, we’d recommend having a service plan with us. This allows us to maintain your laser cutter and keep it in the best possible working order, and means it is far less likely to malfunction. Our engineers will visit you once or twice a year (depending on the plan you choose) to service your laser cutter. Should you encounter an issue, we can support you by phone, which is how we resolve the majority of problems, or we can send an engineer out to you. Our engineers carry a huge number of parts, and have access to a massive database of information, so they’ll have you back up and running in no time.
Which laser cutter companies are best?
This is another tricky question, because the answer will be different depending on what you want from a laser cutter company. Are you buying a laser cutter, or looking for support? Do you want access to training? Do you want to see someone in person, or will speaking to them by phone or online do the trick? There are some great companies, so check reviews, contact the companies to see how they respond, and if they can meet your needs.
But since you’re asking, we can’t not blow our own trumpet! We’re the UK’s number 1 distributor of Universal Laser Systems, as well as winning the Top Distributor award in Europe for almost a decade. We’ve been in business since 1996, and we’re experts in laser cutters and the materials that can be used with them, including exotic materials, we’re huge fans of 3D printing, and we’re manufacturers of acrylic products. We also have a bureau service for customers for manufacturing or processing work, which is ideal for companies that want to test a product idea before investing in their own laser cutters. To sum it up… There’s not much that we don’t know about laser cutters, the materials, and the processes, so we’re a great partner for your laser cutting needs.
Our final thoughts
We’re pretty sure we’ve covered most of, if not all of the questions that get asked about laser cutters most often here, but if there are any that you feel we’ve missed, let us know! And of course, if you’re looking for a laser cutter to buy, you want materials to use in your laser cutter, or you are thinking about a product that we can help you to create the prototype for with our systems, get in touch.